Lewis Hamilton will get more than one crack of improving upon Michael Schumacher’s seven Formula 1 titles, with the news that the Brit has committed to Mercedes through 2023.
It’s an announcement that comes relatively early into the year, compared to the dragged out negotiation of 2020 that ultimately resulted in only a one-year deal.
But what does Hamilton’s latest contract mean for F1, for Mercedes, for the young pretenders challenging him and for the second Silver Arrows seat?
Mercedes avoids awkward transition
Locking in Lewis Hamilton’s services for the next two seasons means Mercedes not only keeps one of Formula 1’s all-time greats in the car with the obvious benefits that brings, but from a team perspective retains one of the central pillars of its success. That stability is hugely valuable.
Plenty has changed at Mercedes in recent times, whether it’s key personnel being shuffled around or, in the case of former engine chief Andy Cowell, moving on. There has also been a shift in ownership, as well as significant restructuring work to adapt to the demands of cost-cap F1. Hamilton is a point of continuity.
Without him, Mercedes would head into F1’s new era with a big question mark over the capability of whoever its de facto team leader is to win the title. There are no such doubts hanging over Hamilton, who remains an outstanding performer even in the second half of his 30s.
So it’s a great move for driver, team and F1 as a whole – as well as for the fans who should now have the chance to relish at least another couple of years of Hamilton taking on Max Verstappen and the best of his peers.
The youth revolution won’t have it easy
This has set out F1’s competitive landscape for the next two years: Hamilton versus the new generation.
Even as that new generation, spearheaded by Verstappen, is threatening to dethrone him, Hamilton has accepted that challenge. That has defined the narrative of F1’s story in the coming couple of years. Old guard versus new, rather than who is top dog of the new generation.
It’s rare in F1 history that we get to see extended periods of overlap of the pre-eminent drivers. We missed it with Moss-Clark, Clark-Stewart, Stewart-Lauda, Senna-Schumacher. We arguably saw a version of it with Prost-Senna. Verstappen has for some time now been operating at a level where he could feasibly challenge Hamilton given comparable equipment – something which he’s got this year for the first time.
The young pretender always ultimately prevails. But it’s not written when that happens. This is not just about who wins the titles between them, but also about who shows greater mastery. But if Hamilton had retired after losing this year’s championship to Verstappen, the consensus would be Hamilton’s reign as the standard-bearer had been ended. This keeps that question alive for a couple of more years at least.
It’s not only Verstappen, of course. The reshape of the regulations into the new era from next year gives the prospect of more teams being competitive – and as such the chances of Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris also taking it to Hamilton on equal terms are increased. Not to mention George Russell, who may be doing it from closer quarters.
Does Hamilton’s renewal delay the succession plan?
The cagey nature of Hamilton’s last-minute one-year renewal at the start of 2021 meant we began the year thinking the big driver market story would be a will he/won’t he over his retirement.
But the vibe coming out of Hamilton and Mercedes was soon hinting so strongly at a new deal that today’s news feels slightly like confirmation of something the world knew was coming rather than the answer to a big question.
The big, big question can now come to the forefront: who’ll be his team-mate?
Will Mercedes stick with the status quo because Hamilton being around for two more years takes the urgency away from the succession planning? Or will it feel Valtteri Bottas has had enough chances and is just not quite reliable enough to take a risk on amid a rule change that could reset the order and Red Bull’s rise?
Hamilton’s recent hint that he sees no need for a change in the second car is a logical sentiment given Bottas is generally great back up and they work so well together. The seven-time champion shouldn’t ‘fear’ Russell, but he’s right to be wary of adding an unknown quantity to what’s been a highly effective title winning machine so far.
Mercedes/Hamilton couldn’t afford a distraction for 2021
From the moment Hamilton’s 2021 deal was finally announced it felt inevitable he’d stay beyond this season. But as we saw last year (and, well, into the start of this one!) even the most expected outcome can be dragged out…
Securing the medium-future is important for what Hamilton and Mercedes are trying to achieve in the present.
They are locked in such an intense title fight that they can’t afford anything taking their eyes off the ball.
Anything approaching last year’s protracted process would risk doing be an unhelpful distraction.
Any hint of doubt over either Hamilton’s or Mercedes’ commitment to the offer could sow seeds of division at a time their faster title rival is completely unified.
Instead, it’s clear that the Hamilton/Mercedes relationship is as strong as ever. Now they can knuckle down to what really matters – trying to win these titles.
There must be good signs behind the scenes
Hamilton’s 2021 form has been easily good enough to warrant him continuing for another couple of years at the very least. And though he usually says the eight-title milestone doesn’t drive him much, it’s obvious there’s a real chance of missing out on that this year – which means it’s prudent to give himself another two opportunities.
The two-year deal, as opposed to something like a one-year extension or putting himself on the market, strongly suggests that Hamilton is utterly convinced that staying with Mercedes will provide those opportunities.
Which, I guess, ‘duh’ – in the context everything we’ve seen in the hybrid era. But given Mercedes is right now more or less a proper underdog for the first time in ages, there must be a real certainty from Hamilton that Mercedes’ 2022 development strategy is right on the money.
Beyond that, it’s a big vote of confidence for F1’s new ruleset and the direction of the championship.
A no-brainer for everyone
For Mercedes, this new two-year deal with Hamilton is the best way forward. With the major regulation changes, you need consistency on the driver front.
For Hamilton, why should he go anywhere else? I doubt there is anyone else that would pay him what Mercedes would stump up, and even if they did Mercedes in reality is his best chance of having a winning car.
I would doubt very much if there was anything too fixed in his contract in terms of the the second driver, so there might still be a place for Russell. But who knows?